The Coen brothers, the Russo brothers, the Wachowski siblings: sibling filmmaking teams sound great on paper, but how does that actually work in practice? While I can’t speak to Benny and Josh Safdie’s exact work practices, the sibling filmmakers behind Heaven Knows What (directed by Josh and Benny, written by Josh and Ronald Bronstein) and now Good Time (ditto) have a clear dynamic when interviewed. Clean-shaven, caffeinated Benny, who answers quickly and expansively, is the performer, the actor-y one, eager to play this promotional game. Josh, hirsute in face and hair like an age-reversed Rick Rubin, dressed in his aggressively normcore director’s uniform of black jacket and promotional hat from the movie he’s just directed, is the artist, given to more considered responses, and to shepherding his brother back on track.
The pair seem precocious in person, though I hadn’t guessed it from their film. Good Time is gritty and committed to realism, but without the self-seriousness you expect from young filmmakers exploring Very Serious Subjects. It never feels bloated or overly earnest, and they’ve smartly used their sociological impulses in service of a genre movie, which gives Good Time a tightness a lot of similar works lack. Whatever they’re doing, it’s working.
It was disconcerting at first, being face to face with this gregarious, articulate version of Benny, when up until that moment I’d known him only as his character in Good Time, Nick Nikas, the brooding, unibrowed, mentally challenged brother to Robert Pattinson’s Connie Nikas, a tweaky, circle-bearded grifter. Pattinson was there too, the former sparkly vampire familiar with the process, affable and happy to be just Rob, a guy doing a movie.
You always go into these things thinking you want to know more about the famous guy, only to find that you kind of already know a lot, because of the fame. Then you hit on something interesting, like the fact that the actor playing Good Time‘s most interesting character, Ray (Buddy Duress), actually inspired the whole movie, by doing time at Rikers Island after being on the run while shooting the Safdies’ previous movie. Only by then, your time is almost up and you have to go. It’s just how these things go sometimes. But judging by the response to their movie, I have a feeling these guys will be making the rounds again soon.
Benny, you play this character who’s sort of mentally challenged, believably. I hadn’t seen you in other things and I didn’t know that was you until I had to look up other interviews. Was there someone who was the inspiration for that character?
Benny Safdie: Myself. I mean that in the most honest way. I feel I can relate to … If I were to take certain aspects of my personality and heighten them, I could really feel that. I can feel certain emotional insecurities, emotional detachment, wanting to just kind of close in. If I ratchet that to 11, I would be that person.
Clinically speaking, did you have a diagnosis in your mind when you’re writing that character?
Benny: He’s hard of hearing, he has deep emotional and social anxiety, and he has definite certain IQ deficiencies…
Josh Safdie: LD.
Benny: …so you kind of add that all together, and you get this guy who is uncomfortable a lot, because he’s comfortable only within what he wants. And now you have this guy, Connie, telling him, “You can do whatever you want, when you want,” and that is beautiful. That’s Nick’s paradise. But then it quickly becomes his nightmare, because he doesn’t know certain limitations to that.
Josh: Weirdly, we never had a clinical categorization, because Nick has never been clinically categorized. The first scene is him talking to a doctor [trying to determine that]. You could argue that he’s someone on the spectrum. You can argue that because he doesn’t have the social awareness that he doesn’t understand… Like that scene in the bank, in the middle of the bank robbery, that Connie turns to Nick and says, “What are you thinking about?” And Nick says, “Nothing.” The fact that Nick says nothing in that moment is so heroic to Connie, because anyone in their right mind, in the middle of robbing a bank, would be feeling everything but nothing. In that regards, he’s disassociated from society in a way. We’ve talked about that there’s a lot of LDs involved, learning disabilities. He’s very low IQ, and I think that had he gone through the system, probably he would be diagnosed with autism, but I don’t think that he’s an autistic guy. It’s more nuanced and tricky than that.
When you’re a non-disabled actor playing a mentally challenged character, how do you avoid being hashtag problematic?
Josh: Originally, when we first set about making this movie, our initial concept was, coming from Heaven Knows What, we were working with a lot of real people and using their real lives. Our initial concept was to cast somebody with a real disability. We worked with a lot of groups, a lot of developmentally disabled acting troupes, and we did extensive interviews with our casting director, and we ended up finding ourselves in a spot where it’s like, okay, we could cast somebody in this scenario, but the schedule that we had was so aggressive and the scenarios were so meticulous, that we would have ended up having to do things that morally I wouldn’t even feel comfortable doing, like manipulating somebody into doing things that they necessarily didn’t even want to do or have a full understanding of what they were doing. That’s kind of where we got to this place where Benny was like, “Listen. You guys wrote the character based on the character that I developed with Ronnie, I can play it.” Then Benny ends up having the wealth of knowledge of having done all these extensive interviews with people with real disabilities, so that he can also pull from.
Benny: Then I’m sitting there in the room with these people, and I’m realizing that there are… I’m feeling similarities to certain things that they are saying, and it’s just, I’m internalizing that and it becomes just a part of the character. I guess, also going into it, I never thought it would be … That it was a problem. I’m not thinking that this is going to be problematic, because I really do believe…
Josh: That you are Nick.
Benny: Yeah, I believe that there are emotions…
Josh: Nick is definitely inside of Benny. You can attribute that to a really messed up childhood of stunting things, developmentally, but then you figure out a way to get past it. But I think that that person is still in him.
Rob, do you think people still think of you as the Twilight guy, and on a scale of 1 to 10, how sick are you of this question?
Robert Pattinson: I don’t know. I guess to an extent. But, I’ve never been particularly… I don’t know. Someone was asking me the other day if I felt typecast by it. It’s always felt like such a specific character in itself, and it’s sort of different to who I was in the first place. I was never particularly worried. I just knew, as long as I could somehow keep getting jobs, then I want to do the opposite thing every single time from the last job. So I was never really worried about it. At the same time, you can’t force someone’s opinion of you to change, really. It either happens or it doesn’t. Yeah, I never get sick of questions. I love all the questions.
Sure, sure, sure. When you chose this project, it was more about being a departure from other things that you’ve done, than not specifically what you’ve become known for?
Pattinson: It’s never really from… I think, every single time I’ve tried to make a decision, which is sort of forward thinking, “Oh, this is a type of part I want to play,” or whatever, it always ends up, as soon as you find that part that you start to second guess yourself. I have a wide net of things that I’m looking to be inspired by. I mean, hopefully, the thing that inspires you it’s always hopefully surprising. I remember just seeing this still from Heaven Knows What, and then seeing the movie, and it was just… It wasn’t like, “Oh, that’s particularly the type of part I want to play,” or anything. It was, literally, just a lot of different things, and the energy of it.
Josh: We, upon our first conversation, the first seed of the idea, basically, the only thing we talked to Rob about was, we want to make this movie that’s kind of in this world of characters that investigates the American criminal, the prison ethos in America, and the only other person we know we want to be a part of this is Buddy Duress. Rob was like, “Oh, I loved him in Heaven Knows What. That’s amazing.” I think that the idea of playing opposite actors with no baggage… Buddy was not a first-time actor at that point, but he was relatively still… He’s definitely an unknown. So I think that that element was exciting, in some degree, at least I saw that twinkle in his eye.
I think that from our point-of-view, we weren’t interested in investigating the side of Rob that, as a performer, that was more of like a brooding, quiet type. Even in like the character that he does in Cosmopolis, or the character in Maps to the Stars or The Rover, these were characters that we weren’t interested in seeing him in. Because a) he’s already done it, and b) I was more interested in kind of the more manic side of him, the side of him that is super paranoid and questions the world and everything. The side of him that sends me conspiracy theories, and et cetera, et cetera.
Pattinson: It’s also that it’s quite a unique group of people to work with. I remember when we were in the prep time … There’s very few directors who, for one thing, have the connections to do some of the stuff, to meet some of the people and to have some experiences. The prep, I remember at the beginning, I really, really wanted to just go to spend two nights in jail. For, essentially, a make-up test. Because we were thinking at the beginning that I was going to have this fake nose and stuff. I was like, “How long can you do it?” It eventually got to the point that it was so complicated to do it. They know all these… The prison commission and stuff. It kind of went down that road. There’s very, very few directors that you can work with, or producers, or anybody, who it wouldn’t just be a, “No,” immediately. We like really went for it. The prison commissioner’s like, “Yeah, even if you’re in protective custody, it’s still too dangerous.” Then Sebastian, one of the producers, is like, “Why don’t you just get arrested?”
Josh: There was, for us… We wanted Rob to disappear in the city. I think the biggest triumph for us was that when he’s on the subway and nobody even acknowledges. Rush hour. We shot rush hour. The closest that anybody ever got to being, “Was that Rob?” During rush hour, where there’s a train packed with people. I’m telling Rob, “Closer, closer, closer.” He’s like, “My dick’s going to enter this guy’s face.”
Benny: But the closest we got was as he got off the train I heard, from his LAV mic, trailing away was, “Was that Rob? Was that Rob Pattinson?” “It couldn’t be.” It was like, “Yeah, right.”
You mentioned the prison ethos. Explain what, “I don’t even give a f*ck,” means to this group. It seems like their rallying cry, their aspiration. The worst thing you can say to these characters is to accuse them of giving a f*ck. What is that?
Josh: There’s this concept of kind of, “F*ck the Man,” in a weird way. If you care about what someone else thinks then you don’t know what you stand for. A whole part of the prison ethos, well, [not just] specifically in prison… I believe the prison ethos extends well past the penal system. I think it actually applies to people being in prison in their suburbans homes, and within their Twitter followers, and their weird echo chambers. I think that it does apply to that group. There’s like this idea of knowing what you stand for. Like, “I don’t give a f*ck what this person says, I know what I stand for. I know what my purpose is.” That’s a big part of the concept of being a man. What are you going to stand for? What are you going to stand up for? How far are you willing to take it?
The interesting part about this scene towards the end of the movie, between Buddy’s character and Rob’s character, where Buddy’s screaming like, “I’m f*ckin’ real.” The wildness of that scene that me and Ronnie like to talk about is that like, a lot of the movie was born out of his prison journals that he was sending me, or from my phone conversations while he was locked up.
Is that Ronny…
Josh: Ronny’s [Bronstein] the co-writer of the movie, and co-editor.
So he was in prison?
Josh: No, no, no. Buddy, who plays Ray, when we finished our previous film, he got locked up. So he was in prison, and he did a state bullet, which is basically a year. While he was locked up, I spent so much time with him on the phone and visiting him. I brought him Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares while he was at Rikers Island. I brought him a couple of other books that he had never read before, and he was devouring them. We would talk for hours and hours until, basically, his commissary account would go empty. Then I asked him to start writing about it. When he started writing about these things is when the seeds of this project kind of came about. It’s seeing society in such a naked form, which is in prison.
It’s basically a microcosm of normal society, except inverse. In prison, the white man is the minority and it’s kind of, there’s a lot of justice in that. It’s like, “No, your entitlement and your privilege doesn’t go anywhere in here.” That was very interesting to me. So my point is that, when for him, his character to scream, “I’m f*cking real,” in that moment… It’s a big thing with him as an actor, as he was constantly reading the script and being like, “Why is my character doing this? I don’t want to look like a f*cking pussy. I don’t want to do this.” It was like a big thing. It was something that we were constantly fighting with, Buddy’s ego. But in a good way, he kind of fortified the role in that way.
Benny: But then, it’s like you go back to what you said, like what it means to be a man. It’s almost like this kind of clichéd version of what a man is, that’s what all of these characters carried with them. Connie, he’s a guy who is living his life like an action movie. He takes his cues from big movies and big things, but thinks that they’re his ideas, that he came up with.
Josh: He’s a romantic. He’s a romantic.
Benny: What I’m getting at, like what you were saying, some of the things that people talk about in jails, is that they get really attached to religion and these big ideas. But they think that they’re new, but they’re really just old ideas that have existed in the world, but they’re playing them out to just a huge degree. It’s an interesting thing that’s going on in your head there.
Tell me about casting all these people. I mean, they all have this very authentic feel to them. How did that come about?
Josh: Well, we’ve always been interested in the quote unquote, “sudden star,” like the idea of someone who’s a star that you might not have seen before. That they basically have this gravitational pull and they are just emitting their own magnetism. We’ve always been interested in that. The film that we made prior to Good Time, was almost perversely interested in that. We were casting people playing parts where they were recreating scenes from their real life that happened, sometimes, a few weeks ago. So it’s like this weird psychodrama happening there. With this movie, we wanted to do like a genre film, like a thrilling piece of entertainment, but we wanted to pepper in this idea of, this movie, of it’s like a thriller, but it’s actually thrilling because you don’t know where the movie ends and real life begins. Taking that alchemy, the chemistry of taking someone who has no baggage, who’s basically playing a version of themselves, opposite someone you know is not playing a version of themselves, is creating a really cool, kind of almost dangerous element where the stakes are higher. It’s like, if Rob messes up as an actor, the failure is actually tenfold because it looks so bad opposite someone who’s just being real. It raises the stakes.
Pattinson: Yeah. If you’re playing against someone who then sees you doing something that’s phony, it’s not like another actor looking at you doing it, like, “Oh, well, you messed up that scene. Tomorrow let’s start again on a fresh page.” It’s like you will be judged as, “No, that’s who you are as a person.” It’s like, “No, I play a character.” I was always … Yeah, that’s kind of what the stakes are like anyway.
Josh: But Jennifer Venditti and Eleonore Hendricks, who were running the casting of the movie, they cast a movie called American Honey.
Yeah, I was going to say. They very much reminded me of that.
Josh: Sure. They go to real life to find these characters, these stars. Jennifer supports her feature film casting with a lot of fashion industry casting, where she’s finding people off the street who are just beautiful, but they might not even know that. So she’s saying, “Hey, would you like to do this campaign and make $80,000 for two days worth of work?” She’s a dream maker in a weird way. She’s very sensitive. She’s also a filmmaker, Jennifer Venditti. Eleonore is actually an actress. They understand these things.
Like Eleonore, who did the street casting, was the acting coach of the little girl in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and she helped find that girl. They understand finding somebody who has the confidence to hold a big movie, but also the confidence to walk into a real scenario where the stakes aren’t a bad take, but the stakes are getting caught and getting in real trouble. They understand how to thread that line really well, and it’s something that we’re going to continually work with throughout our career, because I’m very interested in taking the real world and the fiction world and combining the two.
Benny: That’s why we like to use the term first-time actor instead of non-professional, because it’s not that they’re not professionals. It’s their first time acting. They are actors. It’s just it’s their first time…
Josh: …doing it as a job. Don’t forget, Buddy Duress is a part owner of the film, which also adds an element to it. He’s like a partner.
What was he in prison for? Or jail…
Josh: He got locked up… He was on the run while we were making the previous movie, so we were constantly creating these distractions to avoid him getting arrested, in a weird way. We probably shouldn’t talk too much about that. I think he got arrested for drugs.
How did you know him?
Josh: I met him through the lead actress of Heaven Knows What. He claims we met in high school, but I don’t remember it.
[It was at this point that the publicist told me to wrap it up, or else I would’ve asked 15 other questions about Buddy Duress.]